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by G. Asha

Moving forward to a red sky -my friend Bulu Roy Chowdhury

Translated Wednesday 21 June 2017, by G. Asha

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Bulu Roy Chowdhury

On February 19, 2016, Bulu Roy Chowdhury, a National Council member of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), member of National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), All India Youth Federation( AIYF), All India Students Federation (AISF) and champion of the oppressed, former Lady Irwin School (LIS ), Delhi, student (1951), passed on in the town of Tiruvananthapuram which she had made her home for many years. The Hindu in its obituary mentioned that, “ Ms. Chowdhury played an active role in all activities of the AITUC till her last day, with special focus on the functioning of the organization in Kerala. Having worked in the parliamentary party office of the undivided Communist Party in Delhi, she had met Mr. Chandrappan when he reached Delhi as a parliamentarian in 1964. The two got married in 1975 and worked together for the party till Mr. Chandrappan’s demise in March 2012. ”

Most people in Kerala only knew Bulu Roy Chowdhury as Comrade Chandrappan’s wife. Once I got to know her, I realized that this was a very superficial assessment of Bulu and the contributions she made to the progressive movements in India. I met Bulu di a few years after I moved here from the U.S. True to the custom in the U.S., I always addressed Bulu without the di and she did not mind at all. In this town far away from our alma mater- we were just three LIS alumnae. Bulu, Elizabeth (1979) and myself. This created a special bond.

Bulu was my mother’s friend before she became mine. There were a group of women who would meet regularly in some restaurant to have lunch or dinner together. This was an attempt to ‘take up public space’ normally usurped by men. I know it lasted for a few years.

Bulu was a perfect blend of revolutionary ideals, compassion, humanism and a very Bengali sensibility to the arts and culture. She knew how to balance the various demands placed on her very well. She regularly visited her in-laws in Vayalar. She would sit in dharnas ( sit-ins) and go to far away places most of the time travelling by train or bus, for meetings and morchas (demonstrations). When in town she always made sure she attended the lone Bengali Durga puja, a festival, hosted by the small Bengali community in Tiruvananthapuram. Little wonder then that her funeral was well attended not just by family ( who came flying in from places like the UK) but also ordinary workers, intellectuals from the Bengali community and many women from the various women’s groups she supported and nurtured.

Some years ago I pestered Bulu to jot down her memories of LIS. She passed out in 1951 and was in school during the tumultuous Partition years. She spent one weekend on it and sent me thirteen handwritten pages. I sat with her again with several questions and clarifications. She readily obliged. She also invited me to a gathering of her batch mates in CR Park, Delhi. They were very close knit. If I remember correctly, the ones I met were all Bengali. One had come from the U.S and they were all going to have a reunion in the U.S. Despite her anti- capitalist views, this was something Bulu was really looking forward to. Sadly, it was cancelled for some reason. One of the members also became very sick and could not write me the memoir I had requested. At this reunion I heard of the annual pilgrimage to Simla from Delhi by trains which were free, the first principal of LIS Miss Duara , a fair and pretty Assamese woman who only wore ‘meghala chador’ spun out of the finest muga silk, Miss Sengupta’s Brahmo views and how she was against the PTA starting Saraswati Puja, an occasion to worship the Goddess of learning, Saraswati, in the school. The PTA won and it is a tradition we associate with the school now. Partition took away many classmates to the other side of the border. While Delhi burnt, the school was an oasis of calm.

Bulu spent her early childhood in Ulpur village, Faridpur ( now Gopalganj) district, Bangladesh. The family moved to Delhi, where they had extended family, in 1943-44. She was admitted to the fifth standard in LIS by her older brother who knew the English teacher Miss Suprava . They lived in cramped Government quarters whereas all her classmates whose fathers were senior officials of the Central Government lived in big bungalows. Many of her classmates came from pro-British families. She really missed rural Ulpur where they had lots of land and a big three-storeyed house. Also, the memories of Durga puja celebrations in their house where Muslim women from surrounding villages would arrive with many delicious food items to participate in the festivities.

She soon made friends with all her new classmates. They were thirty four in all, cutting across various religions and communities – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Bengalis, Punjabis, South Indians and Delhiwallahs. They were together from class 5th to 11th. Very few failed. During the Partition, Sayeda, Farah and Abida moved to Pakistan. However they still prayed for their LIS classmates during Eid Namaaz and visited them when they came to Delhi to see their relatives.

The nine Bengali girls in Bulu’s class studied Bengali instead of Hindi. (Compulsory Hindi was introduced only in 1951 after Bulu left school). They called themselves the “Nine Gems”. They had a wonderful Bengali teacher, Ms Biswas, who introduced them to the pleasures of reading. Since then books became Bulu’s best friends. She cultivated a habit of reading late into the night. The main emphasis in Bengali class was Tagore’s writings and that of his contemporaries. However, during library sessions, Bulu got introduced to the work of Krupskaya, wife of Lenin, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth among others. Once Ms. Biswas asked them to give their opinion on Sesh Prashna written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Gora written by Rabrindanath Tagore. Bulu answered that she thought Sesh Prashna was the better novel as the woman protagonist could fight for her rights as a woman even after becoming a widow. It is only much later that she realized that Gora as a character and novel was outstanding. In class 9th, her class brought an almirah to school, collected books and started a mini library in their class!

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The author on the left, Bulu - center and the author’s mother to the extreme right, Trivandrum, 2013

Bulu’s narrative brings alive the school of the nineteen forties and early fifties. Miss Duara retired and Miss Sengupta took over. I was surprised that so many teachers who taught us almost a quarter of a century later were teaching in the school during Bulu’s days. These include Miss Mansukhani and Miss Saxena in Maths, Miss Pal who taught English in senior school and Ms Dharmasi who was the English teacher in junior school. “She used to walk from one end of the room to the other with a rhythm, making waves with her hands, to explain to us what the waves in the sea looked like. She sang and taught us Christmas carols. “ Miss Dasgupta, the History teacher was solely responsible for introducing Bulu to the Buddha and his religion, Chanakya and Atharvaveda. This sparked her interest in history and she read a lot of Indian and foreign scholars on the subject after leaving school. Their Chemistry teacher, Ms Mitra was the first woman to get a postgraduate degree in Chemistry in Bengal. “She was our dear friend and classmate Sunanda’s mother so we called her Mashima. Sunanda got a Ph.D in Chemistry and taught in a college in Delhi. The Science block came up after Independence with a very well equipped science lab.”

On Mondays there was a health club where the nurse and teacher would inspect their hands, nails, and see if girls had neat plaits with no lice in their hair. Most importantly, the books and notebooks had to be neatly covered and arranged. I remember these sessions of showing our hands and nails when I joined the school in the second standard in the sixties. Ms Nayyar would knock on your knuckles with a ruler if it did not meet her standards. There also used to be gardening classes where the girls were introduced to various flowers and trees and the natural and chemical fertilizers used to nourish them.

On the sports front, Miss Gordon used to play the piano and Miss Guha would teach them free hand exercises with music. The annual PT show was held in the National Stadium. Cricket was a craze among the girls. They used to try to play in the Main School grounds. But it was discontinued due to lack of coaching. However, Bulu who was a great admirer of Dattu Phadkar, went to watch a cricket match at Feroz Shah Kotla as his guest. She gave him a biography of Don Bradman as a gift. She watched many of the greats in action – Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Merchant among others.

There were dance classes taught by Ms Nandita Kripalini ( also called Buridi), Acharya Kripalini’s brother’s wife and also Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. Though she was a strict teacher, she exposed the girls to a range of cultural performances. Bulu saw Bharatanatyam performed by Indrani Rehman and Vyjayanthimala on some of these outings. She believes that she could later appreciate Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali because of this exposure. Rabindra Sangeet in the school was taught by teachers from Shantiniketan.

Bulu, attended her first Asian conference as a volunteer in Purana Kila (the Old Fort in Delhi) in 1947 as a Blue Bird volunteer. I think this began to be called Bulbuls by the time I joined school. As a girl guide, they were trained to help people, taught basic nursing and had to take the Red Cross exam which Bulu cleared in her very first attempt.

Saraswati Puja was not celebrated in the school during Basant Panchami. Instead they would visit other schools. Finally they approached Miss Sengupta, who only agreed after much persuasion. Bulu’s father sent the truck to bring the idol to the school and take it to the Yamuna for immersion. The girls did everything from decorations, preparing and serving the Prasad (offerings to the Goddess which is shared by the people at the end) to arranging cultural programs. Here they enacted many dance dramas from Tagore as well as folk dances from all over India. Miss Sengupta, ever the sceptic, gave very clear instructions that the fruits served as prasad should not be cut up and cause illness due to poor hygiene.

1951 was the first year that the Higher Secondary system was introduced in schools. It was one of Bulu’s batchmates who stood first in the Board exams. LIS was soon recognized as one of the best schools in Delhi.

Bulu had only very fond memories of the school – from the impressive building, Tulsi’s shop, to her wonderful friends. But mostly she remembered with gratitude the teachers , “ who had taught us to be educated, good and moulded our characters.”

Bulu’s life traversed many countries, many states, many epochs. Yet, she always loved Delhi where she grew up, where she climbed upto the fifth storey of the Qutb Minar holding her mother’s hand and later went for moonlit picnics. It was in Delhi that she went to Azad’s house on the day of Independence. Later in the evening they went to Parliament House in a tonga. Nehru was speaking. “ He said the sky is red – we can all move forward. And the sky was red.”

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Bulu with members of the Nine Gems in Delhi, 2014

Bulu’s own life, lived with simplicity, warmth and integrity, rose from these times. I regret that I did not encourage her to write more about her college days and entry into political life. She studied up to her Masters in Literature. Though she always insisted that she was a poor student, she wrote prolifically. There is a book on Madame Cama as well as a small book of poems in Bengali penned by her. She regularly contributed articles and reports to the Communist Party newspapers and journals. At one point she was part of a theatre group in Delhi for about ten years. I would like to think that Bulu’s humanism, her sensitivity to the injustice around her and her fights on behalf of the oppressed were moulded by the times she grew up in and the people and books she surrounded herself with. In this, LIS had a big role to play.

I wrote this tribute using the notes that Bulu wrote for me as well as my own.

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